Breaking Rules and Taking Risks for Yidaki

For the immersive new South Australian Museum exhibition Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia, the museum’s senior collection manager Alice Beale had to break an unspoken rule of collection management.

Some of the historic didjeridus (yidaki) in the museum’s collection had to be taken out of storage, played and recorded as this wasn’t an exhibition where people would merely view antique instruments in an enclosure.

“There is this unwritten rule in collection care that you do not use your collections how they would have been used in life, so you don’t pick up a jug by its handle, you don’t sit at a table that’s in your collection,” Beale says.

But it was put to Beale: how can you do an exhibition about yidaki if you can’t hear them?

“While I was incredibly nervous, I did think it was a great idea, I just wasn’t so sure about how we were going to manage it. We took the time to do the research, and go through all of the risks and mitigate them as much as possible. Knowing we did all of that, we came through it very well, and when you walk into the exhibition and hear them, it’s the most amazing thing in the world.”

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Beale had to make 100-year-old instruments in the museum’s collection playable again for the exhibition. And there were issues. Yidaki master Djalu Gurruwiwi said the yidaki weren’t kept in ideal playing condition when the team travelled to Arnhem Land to visit Djalu and his family, whose story was told through the yidaki exhibition.

“The Yolngu way of keeping yidaki in good condition is to keep them moist, so to throw it in a river for a couple of weeks or to run a hose through it,” Beale says.

“The team came back from there and put this to me: that we need to somehow reintroduce moisture into these instruments – keeping in mind that because they are part of the state’s collection and throwing them in a river or putting a hose down them weren’t the ideal situations). We needed to find another way around that process.”

They took the idea of reintroducing moisture to the old instruments to Artlab Australia.

“We built a crate out of wood and archival plastic so we could see in and monitor the collection and we added in water vapour,” Beale says.

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They had to introduce the water vapour very slowly as Beale says an object is “most comfortable in the environment it has been accustomed to”.

“As museum professionals we spend our entire lives making sure the collections are kept at a standard 40 to 50 per cent relative humidity at very stable temperatures and this is how they’ve been able to dry out to the extent that they have.

“What we wanted to do was raise the humidity levels really slowly, because we didn’t want to shock the objects. We wanted to, very slowly; bring it up to avoid warping and cracking. Anything above 65 per cent and you’re risking mould, so we needed to do that over a period.”

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It took them two to three weeks to do this. They also went up to Arnhem Land with moisture readers to test the moisture of stringy bark trees (which are used to make yidaki) as well as the instruments themselves. The base-level moisture reading was about 15 to 20 per cent, while the ones in the collection were one to three per cent.

“We were concerned. It was a risk. But it was a risk that we have every time we do an exhibition. We took really detailed condition report photos to make sure we could monitor any cracks that were appearing, we’ve got more than 100 didjeridus in our collection but we only chose about seven in the end. We didn’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. We weren’t going to play them all.”

Has Yidaki changed Beale’s thinking in regards to the use of museum collections for exhibitions?

“I think it’s a one-off in that the yidaki in our collection is a different concept as it’s a different type of object, but I think I’m probably a little more open to how can we expand our collection in a way that’s not just putting them in a case next to a label. Maybe it’s okay to take calculated risks,” she laughs.

Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia
South Australian Museum
Until Sunday, July 16
samuseum.sa.gov.au

Photography: Alex Robertson

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